Post-classical history

The Royal Weathercock

IT IS NECESSARY now to cast back to the murder of Richard the Marshal in Ireland in order to trace the final stages of the struggle between the leaders of the English party and the Poitevins who had remained in full control after the fall and disgrace of Hubert de Burgh. When news of the death of Richard reached England the King acted with suspicious haste to fulfill some of the conditions to which he had agreed. He ordered Peter des Rivaux to account for all the funds which had passed through his hands in the multiple offices he held. This, the familiar first step to charges of malfeasance and even of treason, so intimidated the bishop’s jackal that he made an unsuccessful attempt to escape to France and then fled to Winchester for sanctuary. To rid himself of the still more detested Peter des Roches, the King sent him to France as a peace mediator.

The rapidity of Henry’s surrender, however, did not have the effect of suppressing the ugly whispers which were circulating in England. It was being said that letters had been sent to Ireland with the King’s signature in which the opponents of Richard were urged to encompass the marshal’s death and promising a share of his lands as a reward. The friends of the murdered man followed up the story and got their hands finally on the incriminating documents.

Henry was confronted with the evidence at the next session of the Council. It was in the royal castle of Gloucester, to which the court had come in its continuous processional from one town to another (when the supplies of food in one place had been exhausted in feeding the multitudes who traveled in the wake of the King they would move on), and there was a touch of justice in this. It had been in Gloucester Castle that a handful of loyal knights had decided to fight for the young King and had selected William the Marshal as their leader. Now they were to accuse Henry of the murder of the son of the man who had saved him his crown.

The documents were placed in the King’s hands, and he read them in a state of unconcealed confusion and fear. Bursting into loud tears, he declared that his signature had been signed to the letters without his knowledge. Pressed for an explanation, he groveled and acknowledged that he had fallen into the habit of allowing his chief officers to sign his name and affix the royal seal to documents he did not read.

The atmosphere in the great hall of the castle had become distinctly hostile. Hands went to sword hilts and murmurs of indignation rose from all parts of the hall. It was an indication of the poor esteem in which Henry was held by his subjects that they dared express their resentment so openly.

The gentle old archbishop had no hesitation at all in declaring his feelings. Fixing his eyes on the face of the very much discomfited ruler, he said, “Examine your conscience, Sir King, for not only those who caused this letter to be sent but all who were aware of the treachery designed are as guilty of the Earl Richard’s murder as if with their own hands they had done the deed.”

He had put into words the thought in every mind. Henry had acquiesced, at least, in the murder of the son of his great benefactor.

The consequence of this revelation was that Henry, to justify himself, turned on Peter des Roches and his party with a fury equal to that with which he had unseated Hubert de Burgh. He summoned Peter des Rivaux from Winchester (and would, no doubt, have dragged him by force if right of sanctuary had been claimed) and reproached him bitterly for the things he had done and the evil counsel he had given. Peter was sent to the Tower, and it was expected that he would be treated with the rigor which Hubert had experienced. Through the magnanimity of the archbishop, however, he was released soon afterward and allowed to retire into obscurity at Winchester. The less important officers were removed in a great hurry, and for a time it looked as though a clean sweep would be made.

Even Hubert de Burgh was forgiven in the orgy of appeasement which followed. He was pardoned and his personal landholdings were restored to him. The once powerful minister, rheumatic from his confinement in prison and so chastened in spirit that nothing could stir up again the ashes of his once inordinate ambition, settled down to a quiet life with his devoted wife and daughter.

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Henry was so lacking in steadiness of purpose and so inconstant in his personal likes and dislikes that the principals in this seesaw for power continued to rise and fall in favor during the period which followed. Within two years the King had summoned Peter des Rivaux back from retirement and given him the keepership of the wardrobe. Continuing in this humble role for many years with great patience, the minor Poitevin villain was suddenly elevated to the custody of the royal seal. This might have led to his complete reinstatement, but strong hands intervened and Henry weakened under pressure as usual. He contented himself with making Peter a baron and fitting him into the post of treasurer of the royal household; and there the subservient Poitevin remained until his death, never allowing himself to raise his head again for a glimpse of the heights.

Peter des Roches went abroad and fought for the Pope in a campaign against the Romans. He returned to England two years later in broken health and loaded with debts. He seemed disposed to settle down at last to the administration of his bishopric and the straightening out of his finances. The King, who had been loudly blaming him for all the ills of the state, veered around once more and seemed on the point of falling for a third time under the influence of that most ingratiating of men. The bishop was restored to a post on the Council. The aging man did not stir himself, however, to take advantage of this. His years had caught up with him and he was tired.

The last glimpse history affords of him was in a Council debate over a crisis which had arisen in the East. Genghis Khan, that great scourge from the steppes of Tartary, had brought his conquering armies to the edge of the desert country where the Saracens held sway. The desperate Saracens cried out for help to Christianity on the ground that the Holy Land must be protected from the onrushing Mongol horde. A Saracen emissary came to England, and there was a faction in the Council which favored the idea of extending help, seeing in this situation a new form of crusade. Peter des Roches, still the complete realist, was against interference, which he predicted would be costly and futile. He said in an exasperated rumble, “Let the dogs devour one another and perish.” His point of view prevailed.

He died in 1238 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Hubert de Burgh tumbled into disgrace a second time when Meggotta, his daughter, contracted a secret marriage with the young Earl of Gloucester, Richard of Clare. The earl was a minor and had been a ward of Hubert’s. The King, who wanted to bestow the young man, the most eligible bachelor in England, on one of his own choosing, promptly charged Hubert with having arranged the match. Hubert entered a weary denial, declaring that the young couple, who were very much in love, had been married clandestinely and without the knowledge of either of Meggotta’s parents. There was plenty of evidence to support this, but Henry, who needed money as usual and hankered for what little his ex-minister had left, contended that the marriage was a breach of the conditions under which the broken man’s estates had been restored to him. While a suit to deprive Hubert of his land dragged along, the young couple were separated and poor Meggotta died of a broken heart. The sixteen-year-old bridegroom, who seems to have been deeply attached to his young wife, was forced into a second marriage before Meggotta had been three months in her grave. Hubert mourned his daughter deeply and did not seem to mind what might happen to him after that.

It might have been expected that the twilight of the Great Upstart, inasmuch as he had tumbled into such complete obscurity, would be a peaceful one. When it seemed certain, however, that his end was close at hand, the old charges were brought against him. The whole tissue of absurdities which had been woven into the original indictment when he was at the height of his power and it had seemed he could be dragged down only by sheer weight of accusation was revived. The charge of poisoning and assassinating his opponents, of using witchcraft to gain his ends, all the long discarded and forgotten rumors, were dragged out from the files at Westminster and dusted off and brought against him. Even the story of the casks which were supposed to hold money for the King’s first campaign in Poitou and which were found to contain nothing but sand and stones was refurbished and brought against the broken old man. It was generally believed that the purpose in thus attacking him was the likelihood that he would pass away before the case could be settled and thus justify the Crown in seizing all his possessions.

Hubert de Burgh, crippled with disease, his memory almost gone, had only one answer to give the King when brought into court. “Had I wished to betray you,” he declared, “you would never have obtained the kingdom.” He was thinking, no doubt, of how he had thrown the plan of French conquest into confusion by refusing to give up the castle of Dover and stubbornly straddling their lines of communication.

The old man had enough shrewdness left, however, to entrust his defense to an able advocate, a clerk named Laurence who had been his steward and was now at St. Albans. Hubert had reason to know that the mind under the tonsured poll of this obscure clerk was sharp and clear and that he had an almost uncanny knowledge and command of the law. Laurence justified the faith reposed in him and by a splendid display of logic and legal reasoning tore the case against his former master into shreds and tatters. When he was through, the innocence of the accused had been established to the satisfaction of everyone, except perhaps Henry himself. The King had to be placated, however, and so the court closed the case by confiscating to the Crown four of the castles still belonging to the defendant. That the decision had been no more than an attempt to save the King’s face was made evident later when the castles were restored.

It is strange that, after the triumph he had scored, the clerk Laurence disappeared completely from sight and, seemingly, spent the rest of his days in obscure activities in the monastery at St. Albans. If Henry had possessed any gift at all for governing he would have drafted the brilliant clerk into his services, as Henry VIII would do later when he discerned the possibilities in a man named Thomas Cromwell concealed in the shadow cast by the great Wolsey. But Henry had already found a man who pleased him, one John Mansel, and for many years thereafter would look to and act upon the advice which this favorite adviser would whisper in his ear. It will be seen later that Mansel was a man of considerable ability but that he possessed the same stubbornness of mind and the same blindness to public opinion from which the King himself suffered.

Hubert de Burgh died on May 12, 1243, and was buried at Blackfriars in London. His wife married again, her second husband being Gilbert, third of the Marshal sons. His own son, John, by one of his first marriages, was not allowed to succeed him, and the earldom of Kent lapsed for the time being. Thus ended the dream of establishing a great family which the once hated upstart had always kept in his mind.

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